The trouble had started two weeks earlier. Enraged at the fatal police shooting of a young Latina bystander during a drug bust, a late-night mob descended on a Texas Department of Public Safety complex and torched the empty buildings. By morning, a local newscast of the barrio’s law-and-order meltdown mushroomed into a major story, drawing the national media to San Antonio. Since then, the presence of network cameras had incited the south side’s bored and jobless teenagers into nightly rioting. Seizing the national spotlight, the governor of Texas vowed looters would be shot on sight. Octavio Perez, a radical community leader, angrily announced that force would be met with force. He called on Mexican-Americans to arm themselves and resist if necessary.
Disdaining Perez’s warning, Edward Cole, a twenty-six-year-old National Guard Lieutenant, chose a provocative location for his downtown command post: the Alamo.
“This won’t be the first time this place has been surrounded by a shitload of angry Mexicans,” Cole told his platoon of weekend warriors outside the shutdown tourist site. A high school gym teacher for most of the year, Lieutenant Cole had been called up to lead a Texas National Guard detachment. Their orders were to keep San Antonio’s south side rioting from spreading downtown.
Now Cole was fielding yet another call over the radio.
“Lieutenant, we got some beaners tearing the hell out of a liquor store two blocks south of my position,” the sentry reported.
“I’d say fifty to a hundred.”
“Sit tight, Corporal. The cavalry is coming to the rescue,” Cole said, trying his best to sound cool and confident. From a two-day training session on crowd control, he’d learned that a rapid show of strength was essential in dispersing a mob. But the colonel who had briefed Cole for the mission had been very clear about the governor’s statement.
“Your men are authorized to fire their weapons only in self-defense,” the colonel had ordered. “And even then, it had damn well better be as a last resort, Lieutenant. The governor wants to deter violence, not provoke it.”
Lieutenant Cole had never seen combat. But he was sure he could deal with a small crowd of unruly Mexicans. After all, he had eight men armed with M-16A automatic rifles under his command. Cole put on his helmet, smoothed out his crisply ironed ascot, and ordered his men into the three reconditioned Humvees at his disposal.
“Let’s move out,” he said over the lead Humvee’s radio. With the convoy underway, Cole turned to his driver. “Step on it, Baker. We don’t want to let this thing get out of hand.” As the driver accelerated, the young lieutenant envisioned his dramatic entrance . . .
Bullhorn in hand, he’d emerge from the vehicle surrounded by a squad of armed troopers, the awed crowd quickly scattering as he ordered them to disperse . . .
Drifting back from his daydream, Cole noticed they were closing fast on the crowd outside the liquor store. Too fast.
“Stop, Baker! Stop!” Cole yelled.
The startled driver slammed on the brakes, triggering a chain collision with the vehicles trailing close behind. Shaken but unhurt, Cole looked through the window at the laughing faces outside. Instead of arriving like the 7th Cavalry, they’d wound up looking like the Keystone Kops.
Then a liquor bottle struck Cole’s Humvee. Like the opening drop of a summer downpour, it was soon followed by the deafening sound of glass bottles shattering against metal.
“Let’s open up on these bastards, Lieutenant! They’re gonna kill us!” the driver shouted.
Cole shook his head, realizing his plan had been a mistake. “Negative, Baker! We’re pulling out.”
But before the lieutenant could grab the radio transmitter to relay his order, the driver’s window shattered.
“I’m hit! I’m hit! Oh, my God. I’m hit!” the driver shrieked, clutching his head. A cascade of blood flowed down Baker’s nose and cheeks. He’d only suffered a gash on the forehead from the broken glass, but all the same, it was as shocking as a mortal wound. Never one to stomach the sight of blood, Baker passed out, slumping into his seat.
Cole couldn’t allow himself to panic; with no window and no driver he was far too vulnerable. Mind racing, he stared outside and soon noticed a group of shadowy figures crouching along the roof of the liquor store. Were they carrying weapons?
“Listen up, people. I think we might have snipers on the roof! I repeat, snipers on the roof!” Cole yelled into the radio. “Let’s lock and load! Have your weapons ready to return fire!”
On the verge of panic, the part-time soldiers fumbled nervously with their rifles as the drunken mob closed on the convoy, pounding against the vehicles.
The window on Cole’s side caved in with a terrifying crash. The rattled young lieutenant was certain he now faced a life or death decision—and he was determined to save his men. With the radio still in hand, Lieutenant Edward Cole gave an order he would forever regret.
“We’re under attack. Open fire!”
When it was over, twenty-three people lay dead on the black pavement beneath the neon sign of the Rio Grande Carryout.
* * *
“The Rio Grande Incident,” as it came to be known, led every newscast and spanned every front page from Boston to Beijing. Bloggers went into hyper-drive. Talk radio knew no other subject. Protests erupted in many American cities, usually flash mobs that drew a wide spectrum of extremists.
Outside the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, tens of thousands chanting “Rio Grande” burned American flags alongside an effigy of Texas Governor Jeff Bradley. Massive demonstrations multiplied across Latin America, Asia, and Europe in the days that followed. The prime minister of France called the confrontation “an appalling abuse of power.” Germany’s chancellor labeled it “barbaric.” Officials in China declared it “an unfortunate consequence of capitalist excess.”
Fed by the media frenzy, the destruction and looting on San Antonio’s south side escalated. In less than a week, riots broke out in other Hispanic enclaves across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Many Americans were shocked by the sudden turmoil in the Southwest, yet, in hindsight, the origins of the discontent were easy to see.
As the United States entered the second decade of the twenty-first century, a severe recession was underway. With unemployment benefits running out, millions of Americans sought any kind of job, saturating low-rung job markets. From farms to fast food chains, Hispanics were pitted against mainstream workers in a game of economic musical chairs.
Only a few years earlier, the election of the nation’s first African-American president, Adam Elewa, had brought hope to Hispanics and all minorities. But Elewa was voted out after one term following a renewal of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Elewa’s successor, Carleton Brenner, resumed what many were calling the War on Terror II. With widespread public support, Brenner quickly launched a wave of overseas military deployments and stiffened border security.
The tighter borders stemmed the flow of illegal immigrants. But the presence of millions of undocumented Hispanics already within the country was a political quagmire that remained unresolved. More significantly, Latinos born in the U.S. had long overtaken immigration as the prime source of Hispanic growth thanks to birth rates that soared far above the mainstream average. The nation’s Hispanic population had exploded — and the lingering economic slump had created a powder keg of idle, restless youth. Fear of this perplexing ethnic bloc among mainstream Americans had given rise to an escalating backlash. Armed vigilante groups patrolling the Mexican border had shot and killed border crossers on several occasions. Inside the border, anyone with a swarthy complexion was not much safer. Assaults by Anglo gangs against Hispanics caught in the wrong neighborhood were now commonplace. “Amigo shopping,” the epidemic of muggings on illegal immigrants who always carried cash, was rarely investigated by police. Graffiti deriding Hispanics was a staple in schools and workplaces. Another burning cross in the yard of a Latino home was no longer news.
Meanwhile, politicians had discovered a wellspring of nativist passion. In a scramble for votes, a deluge of anti-immigration and “English-only” ordinances had been passed over the last decade by state and local governments as Washington’s inability to resolve the thorny immigration issue continued. Most of these laws were struck down by federal judges. Yet local politicians persisted in passing new ones. The strident nativist vote was too powerful to resist. This conflicting patchwork of laws created an unforeseen side effect. Fleeing the legislative backlash, most Hispanics—both legal and illegal—were now concentrated in “safe haven” communities, usually in crowded urban areas.
Outraged by the growing attacks against Hispanics and seeing the anti-immigrant laws as thinly veiled bullying, Latino community leaders in the Southwest had grown increasingly militant. Protest marches and rallies were on the rise. Hispanic separatists, once only fringe groups at the marches, were visibly growing in number. A favorite banner at many of these events reflected an attitude gaining in popularity: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
Now, in a sweltering July, these long-smoldering elements were reaching the flashpoint in the nation’s teeming barrios.
* * *